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Forest ban pushes Bangladeshi coastal families to the edge

The June-August entry ban seeks to replenish the natural resources of the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest
A fisherman at work on a river in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, in Bagerhat district in southern Bangladesh

A fisherman at work on a river in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, in Bagerhat district in southern Bangladesh. (File photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Published: July 20, 2023 01:00 PM GMT
Updated: July 21, 2023 03:46 AM GMT

Twenty-two-year-old college student Emon Ijarader has been struggling to support his education and family since June when the government enforced a three-month ban on entry to the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in southern Bangladesh.

The young Catholic from St. Paul’s Church of Mongla in Bagerhat district belongs to a four-member family that relies on fishing in rivers and canals that flow through the forest.

He and his father, Jayanto Ijarader, go fishing all year round.

They are among thousands of coastal families who catch fish, fish for larvae and crabs and collect honey and hunt wild animals in the riverine forest for a living. But are now banned from entering the forest.

Some 6,000 out of 34,500 Catholics in Khulna diocese, which covers the Sundarbans, directly depend on the forest for their livelihood, the majority of them are fishers, according to a Church source.

Ijarader's family can earn about 20,000 taka (US$184) per month, just enough to meet the monthly expenses.

“We have no savings at the end of the month,” he told UCA News.

The June-August ban imposed by the Forest Department seeks to replenish the natural resources of the world’s largest mangrove forest, which is also a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site that stretches between Bangladesh and India.

The department says the temporary ban prioritizes the safe breeding and movement of fish and wild animals.

During the monsoon season, some 251 species of fish release eggs in the rivers and canals crisscrossing the Sundarbans. Meanwhile, the ban also aims to help the safe breeding of 315 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles, and 42 types of mammals.

The move, however, upended the lives of people like the Ijarader family who complain that 80 kilograms of rice, which the administration offers for three months, is extremely inadequate as compensation.

“We cannot live on rice alone. We need money to support the family as we need to buy oil and vegetables,” Emon Ijarader told UCA News.

He admitted that sometimes he goes fishing secretly in the rivers and canals at night to avoid forest guard patrols. If caught, he faces jail and a fine.

“My father is getting old, so he cannot work like before. I have to take care of the whole family now,” said Ijarader, a first-year Bachelor of Arts student at Mongla Government College.

He said to make up for the loss, the family has borrowed money from moneylenders with a 10 percent monthly interest rate.

Almost all the 300 families in Bainmari, the village close to the forest, are in a similar situation. About 90 percent are Christian and the rest are Muslims and Hindus.

About three million people live on the edges of the forest, the World Bank reported in 2014. They depended on the forest to varying degrees as woodcutters, honey collectors, fishermen and subsistence farmers.

They now must sell whatever fish they can catch at a low price to moneylenders as per contracts between them.

Ijarader said his family borrowed 50,000 taka from a moneylender and are now trapped by debt.

“This is a big loss. Even if we eat less, we have to save money to pay the interest,” he said.

Sabuj Mondol, 35, a Baptist Christian and fisherman, is also affected by the ban.

Mondol cares for a family of five — his wife, two sons and elderly father.

He said his eight-month-old son caught a fever recently, but he had no money for treatment.

“I borrowed some money from a neighbor and took my son to the hospital,” Mondol told UCA News on July 14. 

He said he has been facing a hard time for over a month.

“I have to pay for my older son who is in Grade five, buy medicine for my father and ensure my family has food to eat,” he said, adding that monthly family overheads are about 30,000 taka.

Mondol said he supports the government ban on fishing because it will ensure more fish will be available, but he lamented a lack of support for families who are suffering.

He said the government should have increased the compensation from 80 kilograms to 150 kilograms, so at least “we don’t have to worry about rice.”

Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, a Khulna Divisional Forest Officer, said the ban is necessary to save the Sundarbans and its wildlife from extinction.

“No one, not even tourists are allowed to enter the forest during the breeding season,” Hossain told UCA News.

He said about 31 percent of the 6,017-square-kilometer forest is covered by bodies of water that are treasure troves of aquatic life that include dozens of fish, shrimp and crab species and other animals.

Hossain said they have ensured people dependent on the forest will have food to eat during the ban. He said the original proposal was to offer 120 kilograms of rice to each family.

“The amount will be increased gradually,” he added.

Daud Jibon Das, secretary of the diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission said the ban has “good and bad sides.”

Das, also director of Catholic charity, Caritas Khulna, said the Sundarbans faces threats because for years its resources were plundered indiscriminately violating rules.

“If the rules were followed, there would have been no need for the ban. It is good for the forest, but it pushes the dependent population towards poverty as they have no alternative livelihoods,” he told UCA News.

To cover their loss many people borrow money, which they pay back throughout the year, doubling their burden, he said.

The Catholic Church does not offer any support to the affected communities directly, he said, adding that a Caritas livelihood project provides a little financial support to some families.

“We can do little as Caritas does not have the funds or projects for permanent or long-term arrangements for them. Out of 1,000, we can support 50 families at most,” he said.

“We need to adopt a long-term plan to provide a stable livelihood for these people,” Das added.

Emon Ijarader, the young fisherman, sees no future in the village amid the poverty and constant hardships.

“Once I finish my studies, I will move to the city to work and live a better life. Then, I won’t have to worry about food or take risks,” he said.

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